Mindfulness Through Photography
I would like to share with you some thoughts that I have found helpful at times for maintaining good mental health and creativity. I am not a health or mental health professional or counsellor. If you wish to find out more from a medical perspective I would suggest looking into it on the NHS website.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a helpful technique for coping with stress and anxiety. It can be good for our mental wellbeing. Therapists can help you to explore mindfulness more and find methods that can work for you. In this post I would like to share with you how I’ve used mindfulness through photography to help my mental health. You may find that some of these ideas work well for you. Don’t feel constrained by my thoughts. Rather, use whatever you find helpful as a tool in your own mental health first aid kit.
As a rough working definition, let’s think of mindfulness as being more consciously aware of the world outside us and the world inside us. It is making the effort to notice rather than rush from one thing to another. Whilst taking more time to notice the world around us it is also about reflecting on what is within us – our thoughts, feelings and responses to our world. For me, mindfulness through photography is about exploring a subject in different ways, noticing things about it and about ourselves. This may reveal aspects of the subject that I too easily miss in a fleeting engagement. In a sense, it is losing ourselves in gazing upon our subject. But it is not mindless or switching off our brains. On the contrary, we are trying to engage in ways that we may not always make time for to help us achieve a greater mental balance.
Relating Photography to Mindfulness
I am a professional photographer so spend much of my time creating images. I try to work mindfully as much as possible, being there in the moment to enhance the creativity. To make the subject look good I have to attend to it carefully and to the light that falls on it. However, when working for clients the focus tends to be on achieving a certain result. In this context, photography is still goal-oriented and risks being more about ticking boxes than a simple exploration of the subject.
When using photography as a deliberately mindfulness exercise, I try to move away from this results-oriented approach. Instead, I like to see it as more of an exploration or conversation with my subject. As I look in different ways the subject may reveal something new for me to explore. It is a time when I enjoy the process of photography and try not to worry about the images I end up with. Often there are some that will be kept and open doors to new types of creative expression in the future. Sometimes, they are deleted. This doesn’t matter. It is in the moment of engagement that the mindfulness can occur and free us from worries and distractions. We can learn to look more closely and even to see and appreciate things in other ways. We can become more aware of a subject’s effect on us and our own mental state as we slow our mental traffic to focus.
Let’s start with something that might seem totally counterintuitive when taking pictures. We’re going to deliberately blur everything! This simplifies down the scene into just colours and some basic shapes and textures. We don’t want to see detail at this point. If you have a camera that allows you to focus manually then I would suggest using manual focus to get as far out of focus as you can. If you are using a camera without manual focus options then focus on something very far away then get your camera lens very close to something else so that it goes blurry.
Autofocus is often incredibly fast on modern cameras. We hardly get to see the process. For many types of photography this is a great help! However, to slow things down and become more aware of what is going on it can be helpful to focus manually sometimes and to do so slowly and deliberately. If you can’t switch off autofocus, explore what happens as you move your camera around, pointing it at subjects that are nearer or further away and how things drift in and out of focus. Try to become more aware of the process of bringing things into focus to look at them more closely.
This image was taken out of a hotel bathroom window. I noticed the lights coming in through the window from the street outside and how it changed as it went through the patterned glass. I experimented with focus and found that at some points it looked almost like fire. It can be surprising what you can notice when you pay closer attention to your surroundings.
Subjects & Techniques to Try
In the spring and summer, I find flowers make very good subjects. Their vivid colours can come through whether they are in focus or not. They can be viewed collectively or individually. Each has many intricate details that can be explored. Take time with an individual flower and see what draws your attention. How does it make you feel when you take time to look closely at just one flower? Try viewing it from unusual angles and see if you can look at it with fresh eyes. Notice details, patterns and colours. If you are holding it notice how it feels – the textures and shape. If you are looking at a flower or other suitable object try and smell its scent. Take time to explore the flower thoroughly instead of simply glancing at it.
You can also try deliberately moving the camera around while taking a photo – yes, blurring it deliberately! This might sound mad but it can produce some fascinating patterns and mixes of colours. It is also almost impossible to get the same results twice. If you know how to, then choosing a very small aperture (high “f” number) can help give you a slower shutter speed to enhance the effect. You can also try putting your sunglasses in front of the camera lens to reduce the amount of light getting in so the camera keeps the shutter open longer. A slower shutter speed like this shows off the movement much more.
It is a very different way of looking at the scene in front of you. Perhaps you will like it and notice the colours more. It might be that you find it messy and pointless. Either way, it is another way of getting your mind to work in fresh ways, engaging deliberately and differently.
Double exposure photography is an interesting technique for putting elements together in different ways. Here we see a daffodil flower superimposed on a photo of daffodil leaves. Some cameras have an automatic function that enables you to do this. If so, you should be able to set it to blend 2 consecutive images together. So, take your first photo then your second and it should combine them. If your camera doesn’t do that then you can achieve something similar by using editing software to put one image on top of another and make it semi-transparent.
The idea here was to look at the daffodils in a different way and put the flower amongst the leaves instead of it sitting out of the way on top as we normally see it. I then enhanced the contrast and detail later in Photoshop. You might like to try something similar that blends two (or more) elements of a scene together that normally we don’t see overlapping in that way. It is a way of exploring the interplay between subjects differently that make help us to appreciate them afresh.
These are just a few basic ideas that you might like to try. They can help me to engage differently and more mindfully with subjects that I can otherwise end up just walking past and barely registering. Mindfulness through photography can help you to re-engage with and appreciate afresh the beauty of a single flower or a whole garden. Please do give it a go and see how you get on!
© Joe Lenton, May 2019